With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic
With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic
©by Leo Adam Biga
This is a longer version of the story that appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The widowed matriarch of a broken family in a small ag town barely hanging on, Essie’s the local sage whose inquisitiveness and intuition make her the apt, if sometimes prickly narrator for this rural gothic tale of faith on trial.
Schaffert, founder-director of the Omaha Lit Fest and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer in creative writing and creative nonfiction, has a predilection for idiosyncratic characters. Their various obsessions, compulsions and visions seem magnified or anointed somehow by the backwoods environs. He knows the territory well — having grown up in Nebraska farm country.
His keen observations elevate the ordinary conventions of small town life into something enchanted and surreal. Even desperate acts and heartbreaking loss are imbued with wonder amid the ache. Joy and humor leaven the load.
Schaffert satirically sets off his beguiling characters and situations with a sweetness that’s neither cloying nor false. His stories remain grounded in a subtly heightened reality.
He says, “I don’t know why I’m surprised when people find the stories quirky or perverse, although certainly I’m aware of it as I’m writing it. But I don’t think they’re absurd and they’re certainly not held up for ridicule. You don’t want it to be a cartoon.
“But it is definitely filtered through imagination. I guess it feels a little bit like magical realism without the magic because, yeah, pretty much anything that happens in the book could actually happen. I mean, there’s no one levitating, there’s nothing of the supernatural really occurring.”
His first two novels, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, trained his whimsy on the bucolic nooks and crannies of the Great Plains.
After a change of course with Devils in the Sugar Shop, whose wry, winking bacchanal of misdeeds was set in the big city — well, Omaha — he’s returned to mining the curious back roads of America’s hinterland in Coffins.
The hamlet of the story stands-in for Small Town USA at the micro level and American society at the macro level. Essie’s our guide through the story’s central riddle: A local woman named Daisy claims a daughter, Lenore, has been abducted by an itinerant aerial photographer. Trouble is, there’s no evidence she ever existed. The facts don’t prevent the tale from captivating the local community and the nation.
Schaffert says he agonized if the narrative should explain the enigma or not.
“A problem I had writing the book was needing to figure out whether I needed to offer a solution, whether the book needed to come to a conclusion or something definitive about how Daisy came to have these delusions, and I went back and forth about that.
“There are some earlier versions where there is a kind of extended explanation and in talking to my editor it became clear that that was just too complicated or it was just sort of muddying things, which was a great relief actually. It was a great relief to know I didn’t have to…So there is nothing definitive — it’s not a mystery solved in a sense.”
He says he was interested in writing about “how invested people get into situations that have nothing to do with them and how they adopt other people’s predicaments and apply them to their own conditions,” adding, “That’s the nature of community.” And of the human condition he might have mentioned.
People resist disowning narratives, no matter how far-fetched. Second-guessing themselves becomes a kind of existential self-mortification that asks:
“If I stop believing in her, what have I done? What kind of philosophical crime have I committed against my own belief system or the belief system of the community? And then there’s the what-if,” says Schaffert. “If I stop believing in this horrible thing that might have happened then what does it say about the fact I ever believed in it, and what does it say about the potential for mystery? Which is the other thing, I mean we trust in mystery and we rely upon it, it informs our daily lives — the unknowable.”
Rumors, myths, legends take on a life all their own the more attention we pay to them.
“What I’m really looking at is how a community responds to a tragedy or a crime or an eccentricity that has far reaching consequence,” he says. “And we do see that happening, we see it on the news, we see this kind of perversion or distortion of the tragedy. It’s treated as entertainment, it’s fed back to us in the same way the movies are, with these narratives produced around them. They are promoted and we are led along. The newscasters want us to tune in to find out what happened in this particular grisly situation, and as soon as we lose interest then they move onto something else.
“That’s existed as long as news has existed — that conflict and cultural condemnation we attach to the news as feeding off tragedy and how delicate that balance is and how poised for catastrophe it is. So, that’s definitely part of my interest in pursuing that plot.”
Essie’s grandon, Doc, editor-publisher of the local County Paragraph, feeds the frenzy with installments on the grieving Daisy and the phantom Lenore. Readership grows far beyond the county’s borders. Essie’s obits earn her a following too. Her fans include a famous figure from afar with a secret agenda.
As the Lenore saga turns stale, even unseemly in its intractable illogic, Doc comes to a mid-life crisis decision. He and Essie have raised his sister Ivy’s daughter, Tiff, since Ivy ran away from responsibility. But with Ivy back to assume her motherly role, the now teenaged Tiff maturing and Essie getting on in years, Doc takes action to restore the family and to put Lenore to rest.
Coffins ruminates on the bonds of family, the power of suggestion, the nature of faith and the need for hope. It has a more measured tone then Schaffert’s past work due to Essie, the mature reporter — the only time he’s used a first-person narrator in a novel.
The first-person device, says Schaffert, “carries with it a somewhat different approach –definitely a voice that’s perhaps different than the narrative voice I’ve used before, because it has to be reconciled with her (Essie’s) own experience. And she’s spent her life writing about death, and now her own life nears its end and so as a writer you have a responsibility to remain true and respectful of that. So, yeah, I think her age brought a kind of gravity to the narration. The last thing you want is for it to be a lampoon. You don’t want it to be a missing child comedy.”
It goes to reason then Essie’s the sober, anchoring conscience of the book.
“And that has to work in order for the novel to work,” says Schaffert. “That what she tells us at the beginning of the novel is true, that she’s recording what she heard, that she’s paid attention, that people trust her. So that when we do get to a scene and she does get into the minds of other characters and she describes scenes she didn’t witness, you don’t want the reader questioning the veracity of that description. You don’t want some sort of metaphysical moment where you’re trying to figure out the narrator’s relationship to the scene or material.”
Having a narrator who chronicles lives already lived and lives still unfolding appealed to Schaffert’s own storytelling sensibilities.
“It’s a great wealth of experience and information and knowledge and insight,” he says. “I think it was Alex Haley who said once, ‘When an old person dies, it is like a library burning.’ The older you get the more you recognize that there’s just a million lives around us that have these incredible rich histories and experiences, anyone of which would make a great novel.”
Schaffert did not set out to write a first-person narrative.
“It just kind of happened that way,” he says. “I mean, I definitely had the plot in mind and some of the characters and what I wanted to happen, but I couldn’t quite get started because I didn’t really know where to start. And so I one day just started writing and it was in the first person, but I didn’t know who the narrator was. I figured that out shortly thereafter and even as I kind of wrote the first draft I still didn’t feel I knew her (Essie)that terribly well because she was speaking more in the third person.
“It was really in revision that I figured out how prominent she needed to be in the book and that if she was going to be the narrator it really needed to be her story, in her voice, so once I figured that out it then it came together in my mind.”
He admires Essie’s grit.
“She has a sense of herself of having a particularly special gift for writing about the dead, and she takes that very seriously. She’s not at all self-deprecating and I like that about her. She recognizes her importance to the community and the importance of the newspaper, which she really fights for.”
Before Essie became paramount on the page, he says Doc and Tiff took precedence. As an amateur magician Doc’s long pressed Tiff into service as his assistant. Doc, the surrogate parent, is tempted to keep her a child in the magic box they use in their act.
“One of the earliest images I had for the book was Tiff outgrowing the magic box,” says Schaffert. “I read something about a woman who worked as a magician’s assistant and she had done this trick in this box until she couldn’t fit into it anymore, and that seemed sort of profound to me and fit so perfectly this relationship between Doc and Tiff.”
The tension of growing up, holding on, letting go, he says, “seems to be a theme I keep returning to — these delicate relationships between parents and children. When these various losses occur long before the child leaves the nest it means these constant renegotiations parents have to do in their relationships with their children. And when it’s happening at the same time as renegotiating other relationships, it seems often an impossible situation.”
- Heartland of Darkness: Timothy Schaffert’s Midwestern Trilogy (themillions.com)
- Books of The Times: The Obituary Writer Has the Upper Hand (nytimes.com)
- What People Magazine is Reading This Week (May 16th Issue) (kindlereader.blogspot.com)
- Reviewing the Reviewers: Catch Up on Your Reading Now That Your Taxes are Done Edition (omnivoracious.com)
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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